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Stadium opponents gird for one more battle
Gov. Pawlenty's proposal to build two new stadiums for the Twins and the Vikings will have its first legislative hearing before a House committee on Tuesday afternoon. The teams, their lobbyists, and their assorted allies will be there to present their case. But so will the opponents. And while their numbers may have dwindled, those opponents have essentially won each of the previous rounds.

St. Paul, Minn. — The 1997 stadium debate is now part of state Capitol lore: it was the first significant attempt to use public dollars to replace the Metrodome and it met a groundswell of outrage. Concerned citizens swamped lawmakers with expressions of opposition. The Capitol switchboard froze under the barrage of angry phone calls.

Rev. Ricky Rask and her grassroots group "Fund Kids First" were at the center of the debate. Seven years later, she says she's once again ready for battle.

"The public needs to be screaming bloody murder. They need to be calling their legislator," she said. "They need to be calling everybody they can think of -- Hennepin County commissioners, city officials, their city council members -- and saying they are firmly against this. This thing is very stoppable."

The Minnesota Twins and Vikings both argue that the Metrodome is antiquated and can no longer produce enough revenues to keep their teams competitive. Combined, the costs of the two stadiums is almost certain to top $1 billion. Pawlenty's plan asks the teams to contribute about one-third of those dollars, with the rest subsidized by a mix of new local taxes and a diversion of some state income and sales taxes. And it's that public contribution that has brought out opposition each time.

The 1997 stadium bill failed. A 1999 St. Paul referendum was convincingly defeated. In 2002, a bill passed, but offered no direct state subsidy and, ultimately, produced no ballpark.

"It's been brought up so many times. And it's just, like, when will they stop coming to the public trough for this? I think... there's a weariness," said St. Paul attorney Tom Montgomery, a veteran of many of those ballpark battles.

The teams and their advocates argue that they're not seeking anything other communities haven't offered their own professional sports franchises. And with the Twins on a year-to-year lease at the Metrodome and the Vikings' lease set to expire in 2011, supporters say time is only getting tighter.

Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, the chief House author of the governor's stadium plan, says the time to act is now.

"I don't know if there's ever a good time to take on an issue like this, but at some point you have to resolve it once and for all, obviously. It hasn't gone away. It was here -- the Twins, I think, were talking about this over 10 years ago. And here we are still talking about it," he said.

Although recent public opinion polls continue to show reluctance to use public dollars to build new stadiums, the level of public participation in the debate has steadily shrunk to the point where some observers say the question is no longer should the state lend a hand, but how.

Ed Schiappa, a professor of communications studies at the University of Minnesota, has tracked the stadium debate. He says citizen-activists eventually drift away out of fatigue and a sense that they're battling the inevitable. Schiappa says the Twins in particular have also altered their strategy, focusing not on converting the public but on converting their elected officials.

"It's sort of one of those issues that they say -- want to try to represent as, this is too important to be decided by the public. And, therefore, you have to be the caretaker of the public good here and make the hard decision even though it may not be the popular one," he said.

The Twins' and the Vikings' spending on their stadium efforts each topped $1 million in the last two years combined, ranking them near the top for lobbying expenditures. And there's some evidence their efforts are paying off.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, who authored the last Twins plan, says it's Republicans who are now driving the ballpark agenda, noting Gov. Pawlenty's change of heart since leaving the Legislature.

"When Gov. Pawlenty was majority leader, he voted consistently against any kind of stadium bills, but now has made a proposal for two ballparks. So, we think that the Republicans be given a chance to be on first base first," Johnson said.

The DFL-controlled Senate has historically been more sympathetic to ballpark supporters. Johnson says they're now content to let the House Republicans take the lead.

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